Grandparent book offers tender tribute

The real key to Jewish continuity may not be early childhood programs or adult education or even day school. It may be a simpler solution — grandparents.

Indeed, if culture is a living record of our memories, then those who serve as the links between generations provide far more than favorite recipes and babysitting. They offer the perspective of those who came before and the recognition that we as a people are connected.

Taking a universal look at the role of grandparents in American culture, Southern California producers and writers Carol Abrams and Ferne Margulies created "Grandparents and Grandchildren: Shared Memories."

The slick, 175-page coffee-table book contains the eulogy Noa Ben Artzi delivered on the death of her grandfather, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, as well as the reminiscences of Carol Burnett, Michele Lee, President Eisenhower's grandson David, Cecil B. DeMille's granddaughter Cecilia DeMille Presley and the descendants of painter Grandma Moses.

On a family tree and history presented to his sons and grandchildren, one of the lesser-known subjects, Sam Hartman, includes an anonymous quote: "To forget one's ancestors is to be a branch without a source, a tree without a root."

The 45 stories — some told by the grandchildren, others by grandparents and some presented as interviews with both — are affecting. They also move beyond stereotypes to reveal a grandmother who is a famous Hollywood stuntwoman, another who biked in the 1997 Senior Olympics and NFL executive Harry Gamble, who retired to spend more time with his grandson.

One of the book's main weaknesses, however, is a saccharine writing style imbued with unnecessary fawning that detracts from some of the stories. For example, in one vignette about "The Nanny" actor Benjamin Salisbury, the writers seem overly taken with the teen star.

"It's clear that Benjamin's success hasn't spoiled him," they write. "He is gentlemanly and amiable and unspoiled by success."

Nonetheless, the book contains many touching stories, not all of them about the rich and famous.

One of my favorites is Ann Lipsman's reminiscences of her life in Poland and her four years in the death camps, interspersed with 16-year-old granddaughter Natalie Schachner's school composition on weekends at Grandma's. "Grandma smells as if she's been cooking chicken soup or her favorite chocolate cake," Natalie writes. "She greets me in her pink, cozy, floral robe and asks, `How are you today? How is life treating you?'"

In an interview in her apartment, Lipsman recounts her experiences as her granddaughter listens intently, edging closer. Lipsman tells about searching through the clothes of the dead for gold, working in the camp kitchen and finally, fleeing into the forest as the camp was evacuated.

"The main thing I can't understand is how we all came out of it as normal people," Lipsman says. "We got married, and had normal children. This I can't understand."

In her school essay, Natalie writes, "I don't know what I'd do without Grandma. She's my inspiration, my guide, my friend."

The story of 80-year-old George Meyers, an unconventional lingerie salesman, and his 32-year-old gay grandson David Munk, is also moving. Meyers grew up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. The family was "so poor that we had my father's funeral service in our living room."

Meyers' first wife had emotional problems. When a second marriage didn't work out and he was struggling in the garment business, he came to live with his divorced daughter and her grandson. Munk tells his grandfather, "You always encouraged me to do what I thought was right. To take chances. You were never about playing it safe."

When Meyers found out that his grandson was gay, Munk says, "You were always cool about it. I look at you and see that you're not a judgmental person."

Meyers responds: "I accept you for who you are. I look at your sensitivities, your warmth, your caring for other people, which you have much more than the average person, and I admire you…The fact that you have different sexual preferences than I do doesn't enter my mind."

Black-and-white photos round out this book, which provides inspiration for grandparents and those who have them. Hopefully, some will be inspired to write their own stories.

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent is a writer and editor living in Palo Alto. She can be reached at ghentwriter@gmail.com.